December 15, 2010

Speciesism: Everyone is a Speciesist

Happy holidays to all the Speciesist's out there, which refers to everyone as we are all Speciesists. Yet, the term speciesist isn't often used, even though it applies universally to everyone and it's really a poorly understood and underused concept. Speciesism can be defined simply as the different treatment of between ranging species of animals.

I'll start with some common examples of speciesism, and factors that lead people to be speciesist's and talk about the problems it creates in my next post.

1. I was volunteering with an organization and they brought in people from prison to talk about some of the pitfalls that led them to be incarcerated and what it was like to live in prison. Now three prisoners were brought in and one really impressed the students and people I volunteered with. He had be 'turned around' by the book The Secret, which creates a false understanding of the power of positive thinking, but that's worthy of its own post and I'll just talk about one little thing from the book's website that he brought up. 

The guy had printed the Optimist's Creed and given a copy to everyone and said that he read it each morning and lived by it through the day. While, it isn't realistic to live up to that creed for a number of reasons, there is a speciesist reason that really amused me. One of the creeds is, "To wear a cheerful expression at all times and give a smile to every living creature I meet." 

This can't be realistically done unless one either greatly changes the definition of creature or meeting. If creature means animal than the smile would never leave your face, as anyone who took a microscope to pond water would know. Our world is absolutely filled with living creatures, and they are absolutely everywhere, in fact within the mouth that would be doing the smiling over 80 different species live.

Yet, many people have this misunderstanding and when people think of smiling at creatures they are thinking about bunnies, birds and other people...then maybe further down the line they start to think about smiling at insects and ugly creatures and possibly smiling at fish, but micro-organisms and small creatures like lice or fleas nearly never come to mind.

This shows a speciesist error, even in the definition of what an animal is.  Size is a determining factor in what makes up an animal to many people, with many people not considering about anything smaller than a mouse. This definition of animal is far far to narrow, and needs to be rectified before any issue of morality towards animals can be talked about. 

2. I was watching TV with a girl and she says something to the effect of, 'Ahhh, that's so sad when a dog is being mistreated like that (referencing the television show she was watching)', which is a totally normal and appropriate response. Probing the issue and asking what is wrong, and it was clear to her that animals shouldn't be treated like that, but then I ask her if she swats the mosquito that lands on her arm, and I got another totally normal an appropriate response. It is swatted. She than realized at that moment and perhaps for the first time, she, like the rest of us are Speciesists. 

Different animals are valued at different levels based on familiarity with the species, perceived cuteness, perceived threat, cultural/religious value, and natural fear. 

A death of a family pet is viewed as a much greater loss than the snake that is killed because it is near your house for all 5 of the reasons stated above. The typical American family knows and loves dogs and cats, they are found to be attractive to us, protect the home, and are valued culturally. While there is less natural fear for species like small cats.

Where as snakes are really on the opposite end of the spectrum in all five factors. The majority of people don't have any experience with snakes, they don't look attractive, and are potentially very dangerous. While there is also an ingrained cultural acceptance for not liking snakes.  It was also the snake that tricked Eve into eating the apple, and being called a snake is rarely taken as a compliment. Yet, the biggest reason may be a natural fear.

Psychology, eight edition, by David G. Myers, points this out on page 534, when he sates that, "We may be biologically prepared to learn some fears more quickly than others. Monkeys learn to fear snakes even by watching videotapes of monkeys reacting fearfully to a snake; but they don't learn to fear flowers when video spicing transposes the seemingly feared stimulus to a flower (Cook & Mineka, 1991). We humans quickly learn to fear snakes, spiders, and cliffs--fears that probably helped our ancestors survive. (Ohman & Mineka, 2003). But our Stone Age fears leave us unprepared for high-tech dangers-cars, electricity, bombs, and global warming--all of which are now far more dangerous (Lumsden & Wilson, 1983, McNally 1987)."

People are naturally speciesists and it's a good thing we are. There is such thing as a healthy fear of snakes and other dangerous animals, and is appropriate, yet it can also go to far. Some people might kill every snake that they see, even when they are far away or pose no threat to them. When speciesism goes to far, and some of its other problems/solutions will be the subject of my next post.

Goodbye fellow speciesists,
-the moral skeptic

December 7, 2010

A Competency Test for Government Officials Is Needed

In the recent past two examples come to mind that make it readily apparent that governmental positions may be held by people with little or no competency in the positions they hold. This isn't a US, or Canadian thing, but a systematic problem that can be easily seen in many places, but the recent example of a Canadian and American will be used.

The Canadian example is older and has circulated, dieing down recently, but it still remains in the fore-front of my mind. Gary Goodyear made headlines in 2009 when he refused to answer a question about evolution, citing religious reasons for his lack of response, and then further showed that he failed to grasp evolution when making an apology later. This would be a slight mishap for most members of government, but when it is Canada's Minister of Science and Technology it shows a major systematic failure.

Gary's background is as a former chiropractor, which isn't the best background for scientific understanding. It might be thought that a medical background would lead to someone being well versed in dealing with science, but there is often a large gap between people doing studies and the practitioner who deals with patients. Someone can treat patients as a doctor, chiropractor, or therapist and no longer be immersed in the scientific process. This situation was talked about indepthly during The Skeptics Guide to the Universes interview with Carol Tavris in episode 269.

This was shown to be the case when Canada's Science minister was asked if he believed in evolution. His response was that, "I'm not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don't think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate."

I don't think he understood that as the Minister of Science and Technology it is necessary that he be able to talk about scientific theories. He then went further to say that,

"I do believe that just because you can't see it under a microscope doesn't mean it doesn't exist. It could mean we don't have a powerful enough microscope yet. So I'm not fussy on this business that we already know everything. ... I think we need to recognize that we don't know."

Again, I'm sure that we don't know everything, but to say that, 'Just because you can't prove that it's there doesn't mean that it isn't there' is directly opposed to any scientific view. Without any evidence to believe that something is there, it shouldn't be thought of as being there or be appealed to as being there.

Until that new microscope shows that something is indeed there the question really isn't open to guess work. Everyone recognizes that there are things we don't know, but a Mister of Science and Technology should understand the need for evidence to decide if something is really there.

Than as a follow-up to make up for his obvious blunder he came out and officially demonstrated that he didn't know what he was talking about,

“We are evolving every year, every decade. That's a fact, whether it is to the intensity of the sun, whether it is to, as a chiropractor, walking on cement versus anything else, whether it is running shoes or high heels, of course we are evolving to our environment. But that's not relevant and that is why I refused to answer the question. The interview was about our science and tech strategy, which is strong.”

Evolution isn't a process where bodies get used to doing something and pass on that knowledge to future generations. That view of the process of evolution is the Lamarckian view and it is strong version of it at that. It is a view that incorrectly describes human evolution. People aren't being genetically selected because they can better walk on cement, it's a negligible factor in human reproduction. The question is relevant and Goodyear showed even in correcting himself he couldn't understand the most important scientific theory of our time (an argument could be made for general relativity).

Goodyear is a joke as a minister of science and technology, but as sometimes happens the United States has gone and one upped Canada. This 'one-upmanship' or 'down-manship', I'm really not sure, took place when John Shimkus, while running for the chair of the council on energy, brought his bible along to testify.

He then proceeded to read Genesis 8 verse 21 and 22, which states that, "Never again will I curse the ground because of man even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood and never again will I destroy all living creatures as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease." and stated that, that was the infallible word of God and it will hold true about the earth.

I guess Mr. Shimkus really wanted to pile on the 'evidence' because he also read a second verse which came from Mathew 24 which states that, "And he will send his angles with a loud trumpet call and they will gather his elect from the four winds from one end of the heavens to the other. The earth will end only when god declares its time to be over."

Wow...that's all I can say. Even if this guy isn't elected to the head of the energy council he will still be part of the council, and will share the view that nothing drastic has to be done because God won't let the earth go to ruins, and won't destroy all living creatures. This is a tragedy, as he is someone with an ingrained  and obviously hazardous view, yet he will be helping to decide the energy policy for the most powerful nation in the free world.

Something has to be done about those type of people in government. I have no problem with people holding religious positions privately, or even having them in government when they don't have a direct bearing on the matters at hand, but there are some governmental positions that require a higher standard than others.

Take, I don't know....being the Minister of Science and Technology, for instance. That person should probably have to have an understanding of the scientific method, and some of the most prominent scientific theories. Ideally a science geek should be the minister of science and technology, just as someone with a real grasp about energy and how the world works should be a member of a council on energy, but looking at the situation now I'd take anyone who could pass a simple test.

This action takes no thought at all, just like when testing someone to show that the person has the knowledge to perform a job, government officials should have to pass a test to show that they are competent at fulfilling the position they are put in. It would save a lot of embarrassment, and would ensure that people like the above wouldn't sneak through the cracks as often.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic